Jan 27, 2012

Plum Wine Review

Plum Wine by Angela Davis-Gardner is a historical novel set in Vietnam Era Japan. Like the author once was, the main character, Barbara, is an English teacher at a Japanese university. An interesting aspect of the main character's situation is that she speaks very little Japanese. I could not imagine living in another country and not speaking their language, especially in the predigital age. I was lucky enough to share my reading experience with Carrie at Books and Movies after she read a post where I listed some books I wanted to try and read and she shared she had Plum Wine to read as well.

As the story begins, a wine chest is being delivered to Barbara that belonged to her friend Michi. Michi has recently passed away and left this wine and chest behind. Though Barbara loves the gift she isn't entirely sure why she received it. One of the main themes in the book is the revelation of different layers of meaning.  After the chest had been delivered, Barbara looks around the room. "It was strange, she thought. how the placement of objects affected them. It was true for people too. She herself had never felt accurately place, had never taken root anywhere" (12). This aspect of Barbara's personality becomes the backdrop on which the story is built.  I particularly loved this passage and thought it was a beautiful glimpse into Barbara's psyche.  Part pf this lack of rooting is what cultivated the friendship between Michi and Barbara.

I liked seeing Japanese culture through the eyes of Barbara; the American perspective helped high light more intensely the differences between the two cultures. In this new and different place Michi seemed to be the most welcoming person Barbara had found. Later in the story we find that Barbara almost considers Michi like a mother. The relationships between mother and daughter is one of the major thematic overlays in the books. At times I think it may have been a little heavy heavy handed. I felt a very overt layering of story lines, each of varying complexity, pile up in a haphazard way. All of these story lines are supposed to reflect again on Barbara's place in the world and playing off the concept of going to Japanese as a way to fill the need to find her own mother, or some memory of her (even though she is very much alive), within the landscape of this foreign world.

Since reading Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix I have been eager to read more books about and inspired by Asian culture. I noticed that I had a gap in my cultural knowledge when it came to this area of the world and I quickly wanted to rectify it. Plum Wine has definitely been a good start in fulfilling that desire. It may not be the best or first choice but I like to take a meandering way through fiction; even if this story wasn't the most informative or the most well written, I really enjoyed it. I also found a mythology that became of particular interest. The Kitsune is a fox trickster archetype in Asian myths. Introduction to this character type may have been the most rewarding gift Plum Wine had to give me. For more on the Kitsune, please see my previous post.

Both Carrie and I really enjoyed the first quarter of the book. I particularly liked the references to literature and Barbara's classroom discussions. If the book had more of the classroom experiences woven through it Carrie and I would have been a lot more satisfied with the way the story went and the quality of the storytelling. But the whole second half of the book was a bit of a miss for both of us. We had similar complaints and similar desires for what we wished was different. I loved the romantic story line in Plum Wine but it did get to a point where it was a little repetitive and clunky. If the romance had been balanced out by more of Barbara's life, I think there would have been a more complete story told. Yes still the book seemed to win me over in a way it didn't for Carrie. This was probably a mix of my exposure to the Kitsune myth and how strong my desire was to connect with Asian related books.

Plum Wine feels like a coming of age story, but there were just too many pieces in the story for Barbara's personal journey to shine through. I almost appreciate this book for what I wish it was rather than what it ended up being. Carrie and I both would have enjoyed the books more if there was less piling up of back stories that didn't seem to have any resolve in Barbara's life or place in the world. Overall though, I would recommend this book. It really depends of what you are hoping to get out of it, but it was an enjoyable book and maybe would have been better as a one sitting kind of read. Breaking it up definitely didn't do the narrative any favors because it only high lighted some of the flaws in the narrative.

For more thoughts on this book please check out Carrie's post. I want to thank her again for reading this with me, it was a really enjoyable experience sharing this book with her, even if we didn't both love the book.

Jan 26, 2012


One of the amazing things that a book can do is give you a glimpse of something that you desperately need to know more about. It might just be one little line or paragraph but your interest has been piqued. Plum Wine did this for me with its thread about the different fox mythologies in Japanese culture. The book is set in Vietnam Era when an American woman, Barbara, goes to teach English and Literature at a Japanese university.

I was fascinated about the superstition and mythology of foxes in Japanese culture as presented through the book. As always with fiction, I wonder where the facts end and fiction begins. But it was nice looking it all up when I was done with the book.  I found these fox stories were mostly called Kitsune myths. There are many different kind of Kitsune myths but as Lafcadio Hearn wrote in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan "All foxes have supernatural power. There are good and bad foxes. The Inari-fox is good, and the bad foxes are afraid of the Inari-fox."  The Inari fox is the fox most deeply rooted in the religious elements of the fox mythology and many of the other myths stem from Inari. Though many instances of these fox myth throughout the story, Plum Wine did focus on one type more prominently.

The fox theme runs in criss crossing patterns across the narrative of Plum Wine, but the one that compelled me the most was the story of Ko.  Ko was believed to be a representative of one of the well known Kitsune myths about a fox woman tricking a man into marrying her. Seiji is a Japanese man helping with some translations for Barbara. He reads aloud the translations saying, "Mother-in-law said Ko had face of fox with broad cheeks and pointed chin and her eyes were pointed like a fox. Takasu family had been tricked.  This was a fox trick and Ko herself was fox, mother-in-law believed" (p. 126, Plum Wine).

I wanted to find out more about the type of fox myth that Ko's mother-in-law was concerned with but I had a hard time pinning down definitive sources for the information I found. After finding one summary point to another summary I found an original source that much of the information seemed to be gleaned from. Kitsune: Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance and Humor by Kiyosho Nozaki looks like an in depth study of these myths published in 1961. While this isn't a contemporary book, the date of its publication is particularly relevant to the time period of Plum Wine, 1966. Though I was not able to read Kiyosho Nozaki's book, I was able to read some excerpts from it to give me a little insight into this aspect of Japanese culture. More contemporary interpretations of Kitsune seem to be more marginalized in comics and anime as compared to the deep beliefs in the reality of such being in earlier eras.

Nozaki wrote, "Japan's fox is an expert in changing itself into any form, and its specialty is assuming the shape of a charming and seductive woman, to captivate a young man and an old gentleman susceptible to female charms." This was the fox that Ko's mother-in-law was afraid of. A trickster who had seduced her son and find a way to damage the family.

Kitsune in Japanese simply means fox, but through a folklore from Chinese or Korean culture it became deep and meaningful part of Japanese culture. The quality of a trickster can be mischievous or it can be malicious, but either way there were times when the Kitsune was believed to be very real for the Japanese people.

In Plum Wine Seiji tells one Kitsune myth to Barbara after looking at the artwork on a Japanese scroll. The story is similar to the one we later hear about regarding Michi's grandmother, Ko. Barbara's mother was once a reporter in Japan and brought this scroll back for her daughter before World War II. Barbara begins by telling him her what her friend, Michi, saw when she looked at the scroll.

"Michi thought this picture illustrates the fox woman leaving her child. I don't know the story, do you?"

"We have many fox stories in Japan. Usually fox changes into lovely woman to trick man. Most popular one is fox wife. In the tale most schoolchildren know, a hunter spares the life of a fox. Next day a woman comes to his house and offers to be his wife. He agrees and they spend some happy years together wither their child. But eventually the true shape of the wife is revealed--perhaps as they pass by water. Always reflection in water wil show true thing, fox figure instead of woman. So she must leave him and also their child." 

"What a sad ending." 

"This is very Japanese ending--we call it aware, graceful sorrow."

This sadness becomes the legacy of Ko also. She is forced by her mother-in-law to leave after to is "exposed" as a fox wife. There is something so contrary to the expected roles of motherhood represented in this Kitsune myth. For any mother, the idea of leaving a child behind under any circumstances is horrifying. And the stories leaves a haunted quality.

Watts Martin writes, "Most kitsune in stories are female—women in Japanese culture and many other patriarchies are also often seen with the bane/benefactor duality, the lady to be venerated and protected from manipulation set against the dangerous, manipulative femme fatale."  But this femme fatale is not the Kitsune of Plum Wine. The novel really utilises the myth as one of loss, rather than one of power and its misuses.  Martin's essay was one of the most compelling ones of the writing I was able to review in preparation for this post. The interesting part is that his statements reflect my experience reading Plum Wine, but not my experience in researching the topic.  I found it increasingly hard to find out more information about the wife fox myth.   In my quest to find out more about the wife myth of Kitsune, all I found was the same things explained in the novel.

It has been an interesting experience looking through many different websites and lists and types of foxes in Japanese myths, but when it come right down to the wife story, I had almost all the information from Plum Wine to begin with. There are definitely more opportunities to delve into this more in the future. And if you are also interested I have some links and books that might interest you. Watts Martin's essay, "Kitsune: Coyote of the Orient," is definitely going to be one of the first non fiction pieces I will go back to regarding this topic.

Short Stories
"Where Foxes Dance" by Wendy Hibbs
"Fox Magic" by Kij Johnson
"Cosmic Kitsune" by Tanith Perry-Mills

Picture Book
The Fox Maiden by Elsa Marston

Dark Swan series by Richelle Mead
The Vampire Diaries: The Return by L.J. Smith
The Fox Woman by Kaj Johnson
Serrated Edge series by Mercedes Lackey
The White Jade Fox by Andre Norton
Others by Karen Kincy

One last thing I found and loved was the following song called "Fox Woman" by Kathy Mar. I am also adding the lyrics of this song to the bottom of this post. Kathy's song is amazing and I am looking forward to exploring more of her music.


Mother falls on the mountain stair
Wild marauders footsteps fill the air
Fox appears drawn by moans and sighs
Reaching in despair the mother cries

Chorus:  Fox-woman, sister, we are one
  Give me vengeance though my life is done
  Fox-Woman, sister, name your fee
  Grant that I may strike my enemy

Rebels stare silent at the fox
As the wild beast chained in them unlocks
Killers flee fighting hard and wild
As fox-woman guards the one with child

Temple priest takes the mother in
Tells her that the vengeance will begin
Though she knows she must pay with death
Mother whispers with each passing breath


Soft she comes to the temple door
Russet pelt a shadow near the floor
Deep the drums in her gentle heart
Keep the rhythm as the birth pains start

Russet gown, hem of snowy white
Now a woman steps into the light
Makes her way to the bed of pain
Reaches down with touch as soft as rain

As her touch melts into the flesh
Pain departs as fox and mother mesh
Screaming ends with one quiet breath
As the mother gives herself to death

And the priest raises up the knife
Carves a door to bring the child to life
Infant born still without a sound
Fox and woman spirits have been bound


Killers come seeking for the child
Turned away by visions strong and wild
As they flee down the mountain stair
Vengeance, on fox footsteps, leaves her lair

Words and music:  Kathy Mar

Copyright 1986 Kathy Mar

Jan 24, 2012

Lenore's Dystopian February - Coming Soon

When it comes to books there are a lot of little milestones that happen every year, or a few times a year, that make me very happy. There is always the two book fairs at my local elementary school (especially the Buy One, Get One Free one in March) and LTUE - a symposium formally at BYU focusing on speculative fiction and featuring panels from some of Utah's best authors. But there is another semi annual event that is near and dear to my heart. And the best thing about it? You can be part of it too! It is happening right here on the interwebs and is hosted by Lenore from Presenting Lenore.
Do you know what it is?


Lenore and I first met through twitter shortly before she had her first dystopian month. I remember it quite clearly, someone started about dystopia and SUDDENLY the topic blew up for 40 minutes on my Twitter stream and I had made at least a dozen new friends. When Lenore had her first dystopian February I was beyond excited, this was in 2010 and believe it or not a lot of people didn't even really know what dystopia was. I spent a lot of time on twitter helping people define and understand the concept. Now dystopia is a (young adult) sensation. It is fascinating how dystopia has since become a large part of our shared lexicon. In the post Hunger Games reading world people are eager to find more books that show the possible futures of our existence.

I have eagerly followed Lenore's dystopian months ever since (Feb and Aug). It has been fun reading and reading about so many dystopian books. It has been a passion of mine for a long time and I love being able to see other people sharing in that interest. One thing about the past two years that is particularly exciting for me is that now Lenore has a forthcoming book, Level Two, which will definitely have some dystopian tones. This is pretty exciting for me as a fan of the genre to see a friend having a book coming out. I honestly cannot wait to read it.

 There are many understandings of dystopia and this is often a surprisingly controversial issue. I want to preface this month of dystopian reviews by saying I am purposely taking a broad umbrella to the term dystopia. When it comes to reading enjoyable stories, I have used the term to help me find the type of stories that interest me. Though it is often quite clear that a book is not clearly dystopia, I still enjoy the book and was happy to be able to find it. Often times the opposite is true too. I find a book that a resent for not living up to its dystopian label. This is more about personal preference and personal bias than anything exceedingly concrete, but I am also opening over the month of Feburary to explore deeper the meaning of dystopian and what I want from a dystopian novel.

I hope you will considering sharing your dystopian reads with Lenore and myself this February. For a list of ideas here are the dystopian books Lenore has reviewed over the past few years. She has also posted a preview of what books she will be reviewing this upcoming month.

As for me, since finding a wonderful list of young adult dystopian titles, I have been slowly building my home dystopian library. Here are the majority of the books here on my dystopian shelf.

I have close to 150 books to choose from, plus quite a few on my Nook, and audiobooks from my library's digital collection. What dystopian books do you have on your TBR? I look forward to reading about the books YOU decide to read this dystopian February!
Bibliophile Exploring Dystopia | Food & Community | Utopian Projects